In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to lead an exploration of the Louisiana Territory in search of a Northwest Passage. Lewis invited William Clark to join him. It would become one of the most famous partnerships in history, and it started in Indiana.
“When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark expedition began,” wrote Stephen Ambrose in "Undaunted Courage," the best-selling account of the trans-continental journey.
Lewis was working at that time as Jefferson’s private secretary in Washington, D.C. Clark was living with his brother, George Rogers Clark, in Clarksville in the Indiana Territory.
The two met up in Clarksville on Oct. 14, 1803, and used the Clark cabin overlooking the Falls of the Ohio River as base camp while making final preparations. On Oct. 26, the duo and their initial crew members pushed off down the Ohio River in a keelboat and red canoe and headed west to St. Charles, Mo., the expedition’s official starting point.
“In practical terms the partnership of Lewis and Clark may be said to have begun during a 13-day interlude before they set out on Oct. 26,” says Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs, author of "The Lewis and Clark Companion."
Clark recruited the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery from the area around Clarksville and Louisville after being directed by Lewis “to find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.”
One of those recruits was Sgt. Charles Floyd, after whom Floyd County is named. Floyd lived in Clarksville and was the first constable of Clarksville Township. His death on Aug. 20, 1804, near Sioux City, Iowa, likely from a ruptured appendix, was the only fatality among the 33 members in the permanent party of the 1804-06 expedition.
Two others had Indiana connections. Pfc. John Shields was the oldest enlisted man at 34 and a friend of Daniel Boone. His skills as a blacksmith and gunsmith were considered critical to the trip’s success. Afterward he settled near Corydon. He died in 1809 and was buried in Little Flock Cemetery in Harrison County.
William Bratton was a skilled hunter who moved to Indiana after the expedition and became active in military and government affairs. By 1822, Bratton and his wife lived in Waynetown and had 10 children. In 1824, he was appointed justice of the peace in Wayne Township and served as a local school superintendent. He died in 1841 and was buried in the Old Pioneer Cemetery in Montgomery County.
Indiana’s role in the expedition is often overlooked by historians, though Clark’s cabin and the crew’s departure site are popular attractions for Lewis and Clark enthusiasts. The Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville has an interpretive center where visitors can learn not only about Lewis and Clark but also the Devonian fossil beds exposed at the riverbank.
The park entry features 10-foot bronze figures of Lewis and Clark mounted on a 16.5-ton slab of Indiana limestone. The sculpture depicts the moment when Lewis and Clark greeted each other in Clarksville to begin their 8,000-mile trek.